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Eliot Duffy from ThinkPlace with the local community in Africa

Nine things I learned designing in Africa during 2018

What is it like design thinking your way across Africa as a new member of ThinkPlace’s Kenya Studio? Eliot Duffy shares the lessons he’s learned in 2018.


In my 27th year on Earth, my life has changed more dramatically than I ever would have guessed.  

I've moved my life to Kenya, stepped into a senior role with ThinkPlace, worked across five countries and grown a hearty beard. I've been lucky enough to see the opportunities available to me increase tenfold – but so has the scale of the decisions I'm making.  

Taking on the goals we share at ThinkPlace – moving the needle on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and using design to create positive change -- is a serious responsibility. 

Earlier this year I was sent to Nigeria as part of a project to change behaviours relating to tuberculosis. It was my first international project. First time in Africa. First time for a lot of things. About two weeks out, the person who was to lead the work was unable to go. We found a backup who would be flying in from the USA. 

Before I knew it, I'd landed in Nigeria, been informed our program had been pulled and urgently called my new project lead to tell her not to board the plane. I soon found myself leading discussions with the donor to convince them of our approach, then running two days of workshops with materials I was barely familiar with. On my own. In Nigeria.

There were plenty of unknowns those two weeks, but that experience propelled my confidence in my ability to tackle uncertainty. Working across Africa, I'm constantly visiting countries I've never been to, to run complex projects on subjects I'm no expert in. Every time I jump in, I get a little bit better at dealing with uncertainty, working through our proven methodologies, and delivering high-impact work.  

It's been a year of huge growth and hard-won lessons. Here are some of them… 

Eliot Duffy from ThinkPlace engaging with the local community in Nigeria
Eliot engaging with the local community in Nigeria to change health-seeking behaviours relating to tuberculosis
  • Put yourself in positions where you have no choice but to move forward. Uncertainty rules the world, if you don't practice wrestling with it then you'll never feel comfortable with it. When you can't go back, the only direction is forward.   
  • The world rewards adaptability. I love the work that I do. But more often than not, the details of where on what and with who I am working tend to change quickly. Being able to roll with that, usually with a smile, has been the most significant attitude that has rewarded me. Of course, you have to know when its right to draw the line, but the need for that is far rarer than you'd think.  

  • Have conviction about things that really matter to you. Flexibility is great but it’s important to know exactly where your lines are and make them known. Being flexible does not mean being unplanned or ever-pleasing. People appreciate knowing where there is give and where you are unwavering. Don't make them guess.  

  • People have your back. In the last twelve months, I've felt repeatedly warm and fuzzy over the number of people who have been invested in my growth. I've repeatedly seen people go out of their way to support friends and co-workers who thought they were alone in their experience. Don't fall into the mentality that nobody is paying attention. It breeds loneliness and (at ThinkPlace at least and lots of other places too) it's not true.  

  • Don't lose sight of what nourishes you. I listened to a great Podcast from The Dirtbag Diaries about climber Keith Erps' journey to recover from a friend's death while on a climbing trip. He writes: "I used to go climbing in the same way people would go to a well, a source of life equally routine and sacred. It would fill me up - leave me refreshed and full after a hard day in the mountains...(after the accident) I wanted to love it, but had to find a new answer to the 'why' questions".  For twelve years of my life, that well was Parkour. Eventually, I found it didn't light the same fire. Camping and surfing then filled that space. Now, I've moved to a new city, on a new continent and visiting those old ‘wells’ isn't quite as easy. I'm searching for that new well here in Kenya. Finding it is critical to a sustainable, wholesome life (maybe that’s why they call it ‘well’ being). 

  • As you grow, your ability to destress needs to grow with you. As you grow, the size of your challenges grows too - along with the stakes of the decisions you make. The pressure I was under when I was leading a small NGO is eclipsed by the pressure of the work I'm doing now. That’s all the more reason to have healthy practices that help you deal with stress - whether its meditation, exercise, journaling, or whatever works for you. Get good at it when stakes are low, and your future-self will thank you.   

  • Eat that frog.Eat that frog. It's what they all say, and I finally started doing it this year. The thing you dread most should be #1 on your to-do list. I didn't anticipate how much better the day gets when you deal with the tough stuff first.  

  • Expectation rarely matches reality (but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go for it). I always dreamed of a job where I'm travelling, visiting amazing places and meeting amazing people. I'm privileged to be doing those things right now (I'm writing this article from a hotel in Mozambique). The truth? It is amazing, and rewarding, but can also be tiring, stressful and take you far away from loved ones. I love my travels but I’ve discovered I am no digital nomad. I like having a home and I like routine, I like visiting the same café. Every. Single. Day. I never would have anticipated how important that sense of routine is to me. This year has enabled me to realise I needed to amend, just a little, what I was pursuing. It’s a slightly different dream now.  

  • Cultivate an explorer's mindset. Designers talk about the importance of constraints in making something great, the same is true when making choices about our own growth. The weight of making the 'right' choice can be paralysing. The reality is, the risk of making the 'wrong' choice is very low. An explorer’s mindset means committing to a heading until you've seen what you want to see, then changing if necessary. Many of the directions you go will not lead where you expect. But I'll bet you'll learn more than you ever would standing in the middle of the road, looking at all the street signs. 

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